The missing element in Barack Obama’s presidency up to this point has been a popular appeal to the American people.

He has needed to stand at the “bully pulpit” that Teddy Roosevelt described as the most powerful tool available to presidents.

Obama, who won the Democratic nomination and the presidency in large part because of his ability to communicate, has been too slow to use that bully pulpit. His inaugural address was somber and constricted. His television interviews have been apologetic and defensive. His one to-the-barricades speech was delivered to the chorus at a Democratic congressional retreat, when he should have been reaching out to a mass audience. And he has spent more time behind closed doors with Republican congressional hustlers than with the people who elected him.

The new administration’s pulled punches and political missteps have hurt not just the president’s program but the prospects for a rapid response to what he correctly identifies as an economic “catastrophe.”

Republicans have penned the narrative of the past several weeks, even though the GOP is a minority party arguing an unpopular belief.

And it became evident over the weekend the only way to redirect the discussion was for Obama to go to the people.

So he did.

The president flew out of Washington Monday morning for a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Indiana, a manufacturing town that has taken some of the hardest hits in the current economic meltdown — with unemployment soaring in the past year from 4.7 percent to one of the highest rates in the country: 15.3 percent.

At the meeting, Obama took unscripted questions from a crowd that asked him tough questions — not just about the economy but about the missteps of his first several weeks in office.

And he sounded, finally, like he was ready to fight for a stimulus package with “the right size… the right scope… the right priorities to create jobs, jumpstart this economy and transform this economy for the 21st century” — as opposed to squandering federal resources on tax cuts that will, at best, go into bank accounts rather than toward the infrastructure investments that create jobs.

Describing the mess he inherited from George Bush as “an economic crisis as deep and as dire as any since the Great Depression,” Obama spoke a fundamental truism in Elkhart: The nation cannot afford the “endless delays” and “paralysis” of official Washington at a point when people are losing their jobs by the millions as a sick economy collapses.

“The situation we face could not be more serious,” Obama explained in Elkhart. “So we can no longer afford to wait and see and hope for the best. We can no longer posture and bicker and resort to the same failed ideas that got us into this mess in the first place — and that the American people rejected at the polls this past November.”

The president returns to the White House to repeat that essential message at his first prime-time press conference Monday night. Then, on Tuesday, he’s off to Florida for another public session.

Obama is beginning to respond realistically to the fight in which he finds himself. He has not yet begun to muster the rhetorical force or focus of a Franklin Roosevelt or a Harry Truman battling the Republican “economic royalists” of the 1930s and 1940s. But those references to “the same failed ideas that got us into this mess in the first place” are a good start.

The president needs to get more specific. He needs to attach specific descriptions to the discussion of “failed ideas,” along with party labels and the names of those who resort to them. Above all, he needs to recognize that this is a time for stark choices, not compromises.

Most of the worst policies of the Bush-Cheney era–tax cuts, deregulation schemes, “No Child Left Behind,” the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act–came wrapped in the shameful cloak of “bipartisanship.” Instead of bending to the dysfunctional demands of congressional and media hustlers who openly express their desire to see a Democratic administration and the economy it is managing fail, Obama should settle on a clear agenda and offer responsible Republicans a chance to join him in doing the right thing for America.

Leadership will attract support, from the American people and ultimately from Republicans who put country ahead of partisanship. Soft “messaging” and compromises will only lead to more posturing and bickering.

Barack Obama was elected president because he trusted the American people to embrace alternatives to an old and tired politics–both inside the Democratic party and on the broader electoral playing field. The success or failure of his presidency will be determined not by deals brokered in Washington but by the president’s continued willingness to rally the great mass of Americans to the cause of economic renewal.

That can only be done from the bully pulpit to which Obama stepped on Monday, and at which he must remain until the right stimulus package and been enacted.